Euro-Superheroes (and Villains)


ABOVE: Three Fantastic Supermen

Titles Reviewed:
Argoman The Fantastic Superman (1967), Danger: Diabolik (1968), Goldface, The Fantastic Superman (1967), Kriminal (1966), Mark Of The Kriminal (1968), Mister X (1967), Phenomenal And The Treasure Of Tutankamun (1968), Satanik (1968), Superargo And The Faceless Giants (1968), Superargo Versus Diabolicus (1966), Three Fantastic Supermen (1967)


Introduction:

Sixties European genre cinema was replete with superheroes, supervillains, spies, gadgets and gizmos. Germany had the criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse. France had the arch villain Fantomas. And thanks to the James Bond craze, there was an endless supply of “Eurospies” (among the most durable, Jerry Cotton and Kommissar X, each begetting a series of films).  Close cousins to these were the superhero and super-criminal films produced in Italy. Although they were no doubt born out of the decade’s “spy-fi” craze, their origins are also found in Italian fumetti (comic strips).

Italian cinema’s fascination with fumetti can be traced at least as far back as Federico Fellini’s solo debut, The White Sheik (1952), in which a character from a beloved fotoromanzi (photo comic strip) becomes the object of one woman’s obsession. However, Italian comics series truly made the jump to cinema in the following decade. 1962 saw the release of Diabolik, a digest-sized black-and-white comic book, created by sisters Angel and Luciana Guissani. This long-running series (which celebrated its 800th issue in 2013) chronicles the exploits of master thief Diabolik and his lover-accomplice Eva Kant. Inspector Ginko attempts to bring the brigands to justice, but Diabolik always outsmarts him. The popularity of Diabolik influenced other Italian crime comics (referred to as fumetti neri-literally, black comics), including Kriminal and Satanik, both created by Magnus and Max Bunker (who would later release the wildly popular Italian secret agent spoof, Alan Ford).

Kriminal features an English master thief named Anthony Logan, who dons a black-and-gold costume with a skeletal mask. He too is helped by a female companion (Lola Hudson), and is dogged by an Inspector (Milton of Scotland Yard). Although Diabolik was more popular, Kriminal nonetheless enjoyed a print run of 419 issues from 1964 to 1974. Satanik also featured a criminal mastermind, albeit in plots with more horrific and supernatural aspects. Its origin story offers a space-age Jekyll and Hyde persona in a hideously scarred woman scientist who takes a potion to transform into an alluring younger woman, yet the serum also conjures murderous tendencies. This title also ran from 1964 to 1974, with 231 issues. These three durable characters all had adaptations to the big screen, with varying levels of success, or faithfulness to the source material.

By and large the Italian superhero boom was already underway when these arch criminals appeared before the camera. The genesis of the Italian superhero movie subgenre can also be ascribed to the Eurospy craze of its day. As you will see in this page, some characters work for government agents, and some of the scenarios use time-worn tropes used in espionage films. These movies also have an otherworldly feeling: no less so than the German krimis of the era, which featured London locations and Scotland Yard characters, albeit presented with a distinctive art direction and atmosphere that is representative of German cinema. Some of the films in this issue likewise have London settings, Scotland Yard detectives and English butlers enacted by Italian-speaking performers. Because of their contents, many of these films can be regarded as  “camp” (misused as that term often is), even when they’re not attempting to be spoofy, with their larger than life performances and production values. At their best, they nicely capture the look and feel of a live action comic book.

Argoman The Fantastic Superman

(Italy, 1967) DIR: Sergio Grieco. SCR-STY: Dino Verde, Vincenzo Flamini. PROD: Edmondo Amanti. CAST: Roger Browne, Dominique Boschero, Eduardo Fajardo, Nadia Marlowa


The only superpower exhibited by some of these heroes is that they can fight well. Argoman on the other hand, has telepathic capabilities, as seen in the opening when the anti-hero is facing a firing squad, and has his captors turn their guns on themselves. This sequence (missing in some prints) is the only time in a long while that you see Argoman in costume. (This may be a blessing, once you see his silly yellow outfit.) Otherwise, this film plays more like a James Bond film, and reinforces the ugly sexism that abounded in some of those pictures. Consider this. Argoman’s alter ego is Sir Reginald Hoover (Roger Browne), a playboy who lives in a groovy coastal mansion. He has TV cameras that offer views of his female assistants in their bedrooms.  He also uses his telekinesis to levitate one Regina Sullivan (Dominique Boschero) from a hovercraft to his pad, and offers her a game to shoot a target with an arrow. If she hits the target, she gets a car. If she misses, she has sex with him. Unsurprisingly, she ends up in bed with him. And after they get dressed, she shoots an arrow again, and this time hits the target, implying that she wanted sex all along. Ha ha. Argoman’s perky assistant Samantha (Nadia Marlowa) is mostly decorative, largely serving to distract the bad guys by prancing around in her underwear while our hero sneaks into their armoured truck. However, our libidinous superhero has one Achilles heel. His superpowers are inactive for six hours after lovemaking. This sly jab at the male ego (man’s inability to have further arousal after climax) is sadly never exploited in the plot.  Eventually Argoman gets out of bed to save the world from the super-villainess Jenabell (a play on the name Jezebel?). She even has a black clunky robot abduct poor Samantha, to lure the superhero to her lair. The film has some good art direction, especially in the Kubrick-like monochrome of Hoover’s mansion and Jenabell’s futuristic headquarters. The special effects however are quite poor (especially in the levitation scenes, and dated matting devices for the smoke bombs used during a robbery).  It plays more like an espionage film, with such gimmicks as a radioactive cigarette (!) that Hoover can trace to find the bad guys. Director Sergio Grieco had made several films in the Eurospy genre, including Rififi In Amsterdam, and two of the Dick Malloy (Agent 077) films with Ken Clark: From The Orient With Fury and Mission Bloody Mary. Star Roger Browne also had a long pedigree in espionage, after his peplum cycle of films wound down. He collaborated with Umberto Lenzi on The Spy Who Loved Flowers and Superseven Calling Cairo; and again with Grieco for Password: Kill Agent Gordon.

Danger: Diabolik

(Italy, 1968) DIR: Mario Bava. SCR: Dino Maiuri, Brian Degas, Tudor Gates, Mario Bava. STY: Dino Maiuri, Angela Giussani, Luciana Giussani, Adriano Baracco. PROD: Dino De Laurentiis. CAST: John John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Terry-Thomas.


Danger: Diabolik is no doubt the finest of the entire Italian superhero-supervillain subgenre, featuring the exploits of master criminal Diabolik and his lover-accomplice Eva. His rival, Inspector Ginko, pressures gangster Valmont to recruit the underworld (shades of Fritz Lang’s M) to help capture him! The screen adaptation of the durable super criminal fumetto originally began as a project produced by Tonino Cervi, to be directed by Seth Holt.  Producer Dino de Laurentiis was so displeased with the footage, that he started all over again with director Mario Bava, a different cast, and half the original budget, utilizing some of the same cast and crew from the producer’s own Barbarella, while that project was on production break. Although Danger: Diabolik is a very enjoyable film, making it was an unhappy experience. The producer wanted more of a family oriented film, while Bava wanted to stay close to the heart of its source material, but was forced to tone down a lot of the violence. This clashing of approaches actually gives the film an interesting mix of tones. The violence is so baroquely outrageous that it disguises the loathsomeness of Diabolik’s deeds. There is humour, but it’s instead derived from the bizarre situations that ensnare the characters. There is no self-referential attempt at camp here: the only wink to the audience is in the very last shot. John Phillip Law and Marisa Mell make a sexy couple with lots of onscreen chemistry. While this genre’s close cousin, the Europsy film, often features libidinous characters, they all emerge as second-rate hustlers compared to Diabolik and Eva, who just breathe sex! The scene where Diabolik puts emeralds on Eva’s wet torso is extremely erotic. The architectural Law (still sporting his Barbarella hairdo), with his sinuous, toned body is perfectly cast. He wisely is given very little dialogue; but when he does speak, the actor’s customarily wooden delivery is actually an asset to the larger-than-life character who is devoid of morality.

Although, amusingly, Danger: Diabolik has multiple screenwriters, the plot is actually very simple. The film devotes more attention to the details than the exposition.  The pacing is often surprisingly serene: twenty minutes of screen time deal with just the aftermath of a heist! Bava is more interested in creating a world. This film is as beautifully photographed as any of his horror films; the lighting and colours are just marvellous. The film is an art director’s dream, even down to the minute: when the smoke screen emerges during a robbery, of course it has to be multi-coloured! Also impressive is the diabolical duo’s futuristic underground lair, with their Jaguar, gadgets, his and her showers, and, of course, big bed. The movie is also very pleasing to the ears, with its psychedelic score by Ennio Morricone, showcasing the great soprano Edda Dell’Orso on vocals, oft repeating the same phrase “Deep Deep Down”. This vocal is probably a pun on where the criminal masterminds spend their off-hours, rolling on a mattress filled with dirty money. Although Danger: Diabolik was largely ignored in its day, it has since emerged as a cult classic. It remains a high watermark not only for the genre, but it is also one of Bava’s finest works in fantasy cinema. (Available on DVD from Paramount)

Kriminal

(Italy, 1966) DIR: Umberto Lenzi. SCR: Umberto Lenzi. PPROD Giancarlo Marchetti, Claudio Teramo. CAST: Glenn Saxson, Helga Liné, Andrea Bosic, Ivano Staccioli, Esmeralda Ruspoli, Franco Fantasia, Maria Luisa Rispoli.


Apparently Max Bunker was displeased with writer-director Lenzi’s screen adaptation of his and Magnus’ Kriminal creation. Not only was he cast as a much younger character than depicted in the fumetti, but the source material’s sadistic tone was watered down to a more lighthearted approach. “Lighthearted” is never an adjective associated with the films of Umberto Lenzi. While the plot is interesting, it never truly commands your attention. At best, the film seems reserved. Helga Liné is perhaps best remembered today for her Spanish horror films of the 1970s. This German-born Portuguese-Spanish star has a unique screen presence; with her distinctive eyebrows, she is well cast as in vampish roles. (As you will see, the Italian superhero genre kept her employed for a while.) She is this film’s true novelty: playing a dual role, as two woman couriers who are carrying jewels. Of course both of them aren’t transporting the goods- one is really a plant to distract the people who want to steal them. Of course, Kriminal is too smart to be fooled by a bait and switch routine... or is he? This story soon fizzles out, despite some interesting set pieces, including a stunt on a moving train, and location shooting in Istanbul. Dutch actor Glenn Saxson (real name Roel Bos) is however perfectly cast as Kriminal. His clean-cut, sharp features so much recall the looks of Flash Gordon or Brick Bradford. In another place and time, he would have a made a great matinee idol of Saturday afternoon serials. Alas, the only time the film genuinely feels like a comic book is in the abrupt ending, when the climax is abridged into a few comic strip panels. It is a lazy way to wrap up the movie, and feels like a cheat. Did they lose the live action footage, and opt to present it this way as a last-minute save?

Mark Of The Kriminal 

(Italy, 1968) DIR: Fernando Cerchio, Nando Cicero. SCR: Eduardo Manzanos. CAST: Glenn Saxson, Helga Liné, Andrea Bosic, Frank Oliveri


This sequel finds Kriminal medias res, supposedly escaped from an Istanbul prison. Our master thief is found dressing in his skeleton costume to sneak into old ladies’ bedrooms and scare them to death (literally), and then collect the insurance money. But just as Kriminal and his associate are due to retire from this racket, a fallen Buddha statuette belonging to one of the late widows breaks open to reveal part of a map which will reveal the location of rare paintings. Therefore, they seek out the other three identical statuettes containing the other pieces of the map. Mark Of The Kriminal is a marginally better followup, if because it succeeds more in the lighthearted approach than its predecessor, despite the nefarious acts onscreen. The scene where Kriminal and his wife plot to kill each other is treated in a tongue-and-cheek way that Hitchcock would have admired. It also more succeeds in capturing the flavour of a fumetto, with its bright warm colours, and sporadic insertion of comic strip panels. Whereas the original film used them only at the end, (one assumes) to lazily wrap up the story, this film uses them to display thought balloons, to cannily visualize what cannot be filmed. Of course, the final parchment proves to be the most difficult. The fourth statue belongs to flamenco dancer Mara (Helga Liné back in a different role!), who horns in on the action. She even brings her boytoy Robson (Frank Olivieri) along for the ride to Beirut to uncover the paintings. The uneasy alliance is further made difficult with Mara’s attempt to turn Kriminal in to the authorities. But as we know, Kriminal is a master of disguise... Glenn Saxson finds just the right dash of subtle humour to accompany his dastardly deeds. He remains charming even while tying up some hapless ladies in order to steal their car! Like its predecessor, this film is basically in two parts: the first sets the plot in motion, and the second, in which the chase is on, is set in an exotic location. And in both films, the second part is the longest, and most tedious. The second half is also hampered by some desparate moments, as in the annoying cliché where Kriminal uses his skeleton costume to scare away the natives. Mark Of The Kriminal is somewhat redeemed by an elaborate finale in which Kriminal attempts to elude capture in a car chase through the countryside. This was understandably the final attempt at bringing the Magnus-Bunker creation to the screen. Since the character was toned down for the film, costume or not, he became involved in plots interchangeable with so many other caper movies.

Satanik 

(Italy, 1968) DIR: Piero Vivarelli. SCR: Eduardo Manzanos Brochero. CAST: Magda Konopka (Marnie Bannister), Julio Peña (Inspector Trent), Umberto Raho (George Van Donen), Luigi Montini (Dodo), Armando Calvo (Inspector Gonzalez)


Satanik, another Magnus-Max Bunker comic creation, was adapted for the screen even less faithfully than the Kriminal movies. Remaining is the central character of aged, heavily scarred scientist Marnie Bannister (Magda Konopka), whose lab partner is experimenting on a serum that rejuvenates old tissue (so far untested on humans). She willingly takes the drug herself, kills her fellow scientist in the ordeal, and emerges as a younger more voluptuous woman. However, the serum causes murderous tendencies, and must be re-administered every so often, else she reverts to her previous state. Also intact on the screen is Satanik’s rival, Scotland Yard Inspector Trent (Julio Peña), who investigates the trail of bodies surrounding the murder puzzle of mistaken identities. Otherwise, the only other ingredient translated from the fumetto is Satanik’s black costume, but it is only onscreen during a dance number!

On paper, Bunker’s creation becomes a super-criminal mastermind a la Mabuse. In this film, well, after committing the murders in the lab, she kills and assumes the identity of a nightclub dancer, and flies to Geneva to be with the dancer’s late husband’s brother (who, conveniently, has never met his sister-in-law).  Matters become further complicated when it is learned that the dancer had actually tipped off the husband (a gangster) to the cops, causing the man to be killed in a police raid at his nightclub.

Even on its own terms, Satanik is a terrible picture. Full of stuttering zooms, shaky uncertain close-ups, aimless pans, it seems incredible that it was made by the director of Mister X (see below), who at least exhibited some competence there. Still, since I’ve voluntarily watched this three times, I confess it does have a strange pulpy appeal, especially in its compelling opening lab sequence, set during a rainy night, offering some memorable atmosphere. Otherwise, its one breakthrough scene of excitement is the nightclub shootout, confusing though it is. The film tiredly lumbers through its shenanigans and exotic locations, allowing the rich bossa nova, progressive-tinged jazz score (by jazz musician Romano Mussolini, the youngest son of Benito Mussolini) to fill in a lot of the required emotion. (Available on DVD from Retromedia)

Mister X

(Italy, 1967) DIR: Piero Vivarelli. SCR: Adriano Bolzoni, Eduardo Manzanos. STY: Adriano Bolzoni, Augusto Caminito. CAST: Norman Clark, Gaia Germani, Armando Calvo, Anna Zinnemann, Umi Raho, Helga Liné.


Many of the Italian superhero films lack an origin story: the hero is already established and well known to the public. In this case, Mister X (also known as Avenger X in some prints) is unpopular among the authorities. When Lamaro (Armando Calvo), a gangster in charge of a narcotics ring, is blackmailed by his secretary, he has her killed and has her death blamed on Mister X. Like Kriminal, Mister X (Norman Clark) is a master of disguise, appearing as a morgue attendant, window washer, etc., to get the goods on the mob ring, when it convenes at a resort. His Mister X costume recalls the jumpsuit and black mask worn by The Phantom in the long-running comic strip. We are reminded that people involved in espionage are less colourful than the James Bond stereotype. Out of disguise (or superhero wardrobe), Mister X is a perfectly average man who can easily blend into the background. He could have been a middle-aged lovelorn character in a film by François Truffaut or Eric Rohmer. While the characterizations are often superficial, and the finale is rushed, there is still a pretty good caper movie beneath the surface, even without the costume gimmick, benefiting from gorgeous Capri locations, and some memorable sequences including the discovery of the secretary’s body in a stadium, and an amusing bit where the gangsters’ wives talk about keeping their mouths shut to stay healthy. Helga Liné was becoming a staple in these films by now. Here she is again as the duplicitous Gloria.

Three Fantastic Supermen 

(Italy, 1967) DIR: Gianfranco Parolini. PROD: Aldo Addobati, Italo Martinenghi. SCR: Marcello Coscia, Gianfranco Parolini. STY: Gianfranco Parolini.


Agent Brad McCallum (Brad Harris) recruits Tony (Tony Kendall) and Nick (Nick Jordan), two acrobatic thieves with bulletproof superhero costumes, to (unwittingly) do some good for the government by robbing a foreign embassy. And then he prods them further into meeting the scientist who designed their bulletproof suits, so that the government can make use of his invention. As soon as they arrive, the scientist is whisked away to  a madman’s island retreat - it’s always an island! The chase is on!

So begins the first of several Three Supermen movies. Perhaps no other film here quite captures the whimsy of a comic book. It is nearly a non-stop parade of action and (the Parolini specialty) acrobatics. Even non-action scenes have some kind of acceleration. Knowing the director’s penchant for broad comedy and circus-like cartoon action (Return Of Sabata, anyone?), this is surprisingly, refreshingly, more subtle than it could have been. Even Nick’s mute character (with unintelligible sounds instead of words) is considerably low key. Three Fantastic Supermen was no doubt aimed for kiddie matinee audiences, because even the violence is absurd. When people get killed, they become outlines with a zigzag pattern and then turn into gemstones!

Still, there is much for adults to enjoy, particularly in the Tony character. Kendall remains the scene stealer, even with Nick acting as the comic relief, and former peplum star Brad Harris flexing his pecs. His character is a ladies man whose wandering ways often get him slapped. Tony’s demeanour is similar to the swaggering Joe Walker, played by the same actor in the Kommissar X adventures. (Harris and Kendall co-starred in the seven-film series; two of which were “officially” directed by Parolini.) There is even an out of nowhere fashion dance number (!) featuring Tony, Nick and two ladies. While we commonly remember the actor for his action-adventure roles, these lovely moments suggest that he could’ve been equally adept in comedies and musicals! There are some good sequences such as where a duplicate Brad fights Tony and Nick, the big chase-shootout in pursuit of the kidnapped scientist, plus a tense moment where a kid is hanging from the ledge. The film is serious when needed; instead of merely being a slapstick opus. It is all over the map tonally and stylistically, yet responsibly so. It certainly isn’t dull! Also, there is a surprising amount of complexity among the characters. Watch the smile on Harris’ face, in the touching moment where the heroes encounter a bunch of school kids who think they’re Batman! He realizes how virtuous his job has become! Also, after the adventure is over, justice doesn’t always win out: sometimes thieves will be thieves!

This film was followed by several “official” sequels: Three Supermen In Tokyo (1968, with George Martin, Sal Borgese and Willy Newcomb); Three Supermen In The Jungle (1970, with Martin, Borgese, and Brad Harris); Three Supermen Of The West (1973, with Martin, Borgese and Frank Brana); Supermen Against The Orient (1973, with Robert Malcolm, Antonio Cantafora and Borgese), and numerous other similarly titled knockoffs filmed in Italy, Japan, and (of course) Turkey.

Goldface, The Fantastic Superman

(Italy, 1967) DIR: Bitto Albertini. SCR: Bitto Albertini, Jamie Jesus Balcazar, Italo Fasan, Palmabrogio Molteni. CAST: Robert Anthony, Evy Marandi, Micaela Pignatelli, Hugo Pimentel, Lothar.


By day, Vilar (Robert Anthony) is a mild-mannered scientist who abhors violence. By night, he is the amazing wrestler Goldface! Vilar’s boss is part of an organization that is besieged by a mysterious villain named The Cobra, who is blowing up their plants. The Cobra’s next move is to kidnap the boss’ daughter Pamela (Micaela Pignatelli) for ransom. Goldface is recruited to journey to The Cobra’s island fortress, rescue Pamela and save the day! Amusingly, Pamela seems oblivious to the danger her life is in… blithely participating in car races, pool parties and waterskiing while imminent danger lurks close by. Although the film is filled with plenty of action, some of the set pieces make little sense. Pamela is somehow kidnapped after being pursued by a plane (a scene that compares unfavourably to the crop duster in North By Northwest). The most bizarre sequence involves a traitorous member of the organization shooting at several Goldfaces!

As for scary villains, The Cobra won’t invite comparisons to The Crimson Ghost. It is no wonder we don’t see him in full shot until the very end, as his costume consists of a black kimono with an upturned lapel to obscure the bottom half of his face. And his fetching Austrian assistant wears a plastic Halloween robber’s mask! Many of the Italian superheroes have sidekicks (or butlers!), but none are as egregious as Goldface’s right-hand man, a peanut-eating African warrior named Gotar (played by an actor named Lothar). His character evokes the Lothar stereotype from the Mandrake comic strip, which was already cringe-worthy in the 1930s, and certainly more so now. Its attempts at humour are quite juvenile; unsurprisingly director writer-Albertini would fill a career of lowbrow farce, including some of the later Three Supermen movies. Otherwise, Goldface is mildly amusing bubblegum, ambling along to sleazy strip club muted-trumpet jazz and a non-stop funky organ loop in its climax.

Trivia note: one of the dubbed voices in the early wrestling scene sounds a lot like Mel Welles from Little Shop Of Horrors.

Phenomenal And The Treasure Of Tutankamun

(Italy, 1968) DIR: “Roger Rockefeller” (Ruggero Deodato). PROD: Nicola Mauro Parenti. SCR: Ruggero Deodato, Aldo Iginio Capone. STY: Aldo Iginio Capone. CAST: Nicola Mauro Parenti, Lucretia Love, Gordon Mitchell, John Karlsen, Carla Romanelli.


In interviews, director Ruggero Deodato (best remembered for his later grindhouse classics Cannibal Holocaust and The House At The Edge Of The Park) has stated that the film’s lead actor (also its producer) was “too stiff… a dog of an actor” (although they did work together on Zenabel a year later) and “that he didn’t give a shit about the film”. Therefore, if you begin this with low expectations, you might have a good time with it. Phenomenal (called Fenomenal in Italian prints, but the name is still seen inside a suitcase in international versions) is perhaps the least spectacular superhero on this page. Just a guy in a black jumpsuit and a full face mask, with canned overdubbed laughter, whose only superpower seems to be that he can fight really good. As with Argoman, you see Phenomenal briefly in an opening stinger, before disappearing from the narrative for some time. Without him, you still have a movie, as Count Guy Norton (Nicola Mauro Parenti) attempts to foil the theft of the priceless King Tut exhibit in Paris, France. Because it lacks the usual superhero tropes, the film works best just as a simple “meat and potatoes” caper with some surprises along the way, in that nothing is what it appears to be: people don’t stay dead or remain in wheelchairs. Its breezy tone is complemented by the Bacharach-like vocalese that commonly scores these films. This modest vehicle offers some production value bang for its buck, always whip-panning to such landmarks as the Eiffel Tower, or the Arc de Triomphe during the chase scenes. It culminates into a memorable climax involving a helicopter and boat on open water by Tunisia. Gordon Mitchell, an American bodybuilder who came to Italy initially to star in peplum films, is a lot of fun as the hired gun Falkov (say that name three times fast). It is a pity his role (though third-billed for marquee value) isn’t bigger. There is also an otherworldly feel to the film as the actor who plays Inspector Bauvais appears to be Middle Eastern; the film is Italian produced, set in France and Tunisia, yet feels British. (There is even a butler named Alfred!) One can see Deodato’s disdain for the film in that it is often clumsy in its pacing and claustrophobic in its framing, and that the final gag seems tacked on as an afterthought. Still, these liabilities in some way add to its grubby, scruffy appeal.

Superargo Versus Diabolicus

(Italy, 1966) DIR: Nick Nostro. PROD: Ottavio Poggi. SCR: Jamie Jesus Balcazar. STY: Mino Girarda. CAST: Ken Wood, Gerard Tichy, Monica Randall, Francisco Castillo Escalona


Superargo differs from most films herein, as the title character doesn’t seem to have any other “normal” human identity, just like the Santo persona in Mexico films. And speaking of Santo, this movie also begins in the ring. Superargo is first seen as a wrestling superstar, who accidentally kills his opponent El Tigre during a match. Disgraced from the wrestling profession, he is enlisted by the government to use his strength for good. This film was long a UHF late-night favourite (airing frequently on our own CKVR back in the good old days), but it may be hard to understand its appeal at first. After the tragic opening, and swirling psychedelic opening credits that surely capture the spirit of its era, there is a solid half-hour of exposition, where Superargo gets his bulletproof suit and goes through numerous endurance tests, before we see our hero get to do anything.  Giovanni Cianfriglia began the movies as Steve Reeves’ stunt double for Hercules, and as a stuntman for numerous productions. With the Americanized name of “Ken Wood”, he acted in numerous pepla and spaghetti westerns in the 1960s. Arguably, his best remembered role is the scarlet-garbed Superargo. And because he’s behind a mask for the entire film -minus one brief scene where he removes it for his girlfriend Lidia (Monica Randall), with his back turned to the camera-, thesping isn’t a huge requirement, but looks great all the same. Superargo eventually infiltrates the island lair of Diabolicus (Gerard Tichy), who has been stealing uranium for his dastardly deeds, and is put through another series of endurance tests before he wreaks vengeance on Diabolicus and his cohorts. Despite all the ingredients of superheroes and villains in elaborate costumes, and great gadgets (TV cameras in brooches, video communications in Superargo’s car), one is always reminded that being a superhero isn’t so bloody marvellous. This is surprisingly a brooding film where killing is never exploited as escapism. Superargo’s girlfriend Lidia is refreshingly portrayed as more than just a decorative role. When required, she’ll easily pick up a gun and fight alongside her man! Although the pacing is too slow, and the ending is sloppy due to inferior miniature work and confusing editing, this is however a very well-made movie. It has excellent production values, thoughtful direction by Nick Nostro, and beautiful lighting (the use of red and green gels recall the best of Mario Bava). If only they had done away with some of the exposition. 

Superargo And The Faceless Giants

(Italy, 1968) DIR: Paolo Bianchini. SCR: Julio Buchs. PROD: Luigi Annibaldi, Elsio Mancuso. CAST: Ken Wood, Guy Madison, Liz Barrett, Diana Lorys, Aldo Sambrell.


A rare instance where the sequel is better than the original, this Superargo installment gets right down to business, as it doesn’t have to spend half an hour of screen time on an origin story. The so-called “faceless giants” are actually human-sized: humanoids in red and silver suits, helmets with tubing, and with characterless faces reminiscent of plaster casts. These creatures go around kidnapping athletes and robbing banks, all with the dexterity of Rock Em Sock Em Robots in a china shop, at the behest of the mad Professor Wond. Curiously, our hero’s superhuman attributes aren’t exploited as much in this entry. However, Superargo has a new ally in the Indian mystic Kamir, who instructs him in new powers of mind control and levitation.

Aldo Sambrell, a familiar face as a villain in numerous spaghetti westerns, who plays Kamir, is dubbed with a British accent. Another novel casting choice is, of all people, Guy Madison as the villain. The former matinee idol and TV’s Wild Bill Hickok, who came to Europe for a long career as cowboys and soldiers, is wonderfully cast against type as the square, bespectacled Professor Wond! Adding the proper quota of nastiness as his assistant Gloria Devon, is the bewitching Spanish actress Diana Lorys, perhaps best known abroad for her roles in the horror films The Awful Dr. OrlofMalenka  and Blue Eyes Of The Broken Doll.

The fast, no-frills narrative recalls the appeal and glory days of serials, not least with its use of such time-honoured cliffhanger tropes as quicksand (!) and cars that eject oil slicks to elude their pursuers. It is such an entertaining ride that one suddenly remembers the kidnapped athletes only near the end, and right before the film returns to that subplot! After this very fun romp, sadly no further Superargo movies were made. Fittingly then, this film ends with our hero finally taking his mask off for a girl, yet in a cleverly designed shot where the unmasking is seen only in a reflection in a pond, his face obscured by the ripples of water. Perhaps at last, Superargo has finally attained a human identity, but will for us always remain a man of mystery.